Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, September 13, 2002
CHRYSOSTOM ON FORGIVENESS: A reader sent me this link to a Villanova University site that displays an daily excerpt from a writer of the early Church. Today's reading is from Saint John Chrysostom and is an excerpt from a homily that focuses--interestingly enough--on the parable we will be reading this Sunday. The topic is forgiveness:

Two things are required of us, here and now: to acknowledge our sins and to forgive others; the first, so that the second may become easier. For someone properly aware of his own behavior and its shortcomings will be the more forgiving to his fellow humans. And that does not mean forgiveness in words merely, but from the heart, lest in our resentment we turn the sword on ourselves. The more he has injured you, the greater the forgiveness of your own sin, in consequence.

Let us take care that we hate no one, so that God may still love us; so that even though we may be owing him a thousand talents he may yet be generous and merciful to us. Has someone offended you? Be merciful to him, then; do not hate him. Weep and lament for him, but do not show aversion. For it is not you who have offended God, but he; you will do well to put up with it. Recall how Christ was content to be crucified— and yet shed tears over those who did it. That must be your disposition also: the more you are wronged, the more you must lament for the wrongdoers. For it is we who profit from this— and greatly— but not they.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:54 PM
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KAIROS ON FORGIVENESS: Kairos has some interesting thoughts on forgiveness today, noting that forgiveness does not imply that the forgiven individual should go without just punishment. Check it out.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:48 AM
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GOLDEN MOUTH: No, it’s not a new Austin Powers movie. Today is the feast day of Saint John Chrysostom, whose name is Greek for “golden mouth.” He received the name because of his reputation as a preacher. He became bishop of Constantinople and was in more or less constant conflict with the imperial power structure in that city. You can learn more about him by clicking here and here.

MISSIONARIES TO THE SECULAR WORLD: In this week’s column, Father Ron Rolheiser talks about a conference held by his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which focused on mission to the secular world. The participants in the conference came to a number of conclusions that make for interesting reading. I will cite only one here:

Secularity is not the enemy, it's our own child, sprung from Judeo-Christian roots. Like any adolescent child, suffering from an understandable youthful grandiosity, it's not bad, just unfinished. Our relationship to it shouldn't be adversarial but one of solicitude. The "soil" of secularity is defined by Jesus in the parable of the Sower -- some ground is good, some hostile, some indifferent -- but the fact that some ground is hostile or indifferent does not absolve us from the mandate to keep on sowing.
RUNNING LOW ON CARDINALS: NCR’s John Allen notes that with a number of cardinals turning 80, the number eligible to vote in a papal conclave is dropping perilously close to the minimum 120. Expect Pope John Paul II to name another batch soon. Allen has some speculation about who might be next in line for a red hat.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:00 AM
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Thursday, September 12, 2002
SEVENTY-SEVEN TIMES: It is perhaps appropriate that this Sunday’s gospel reading is the passage from Matthew where Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who has wronged him. “Seven times,” asks Peter. “Seventy-seven times,” replies Jesus, clearly indicating that there must be no limits on forgiveness.

For many Christians, that proposition has been sorely tested by September 11th. In some unscripted remarks offered yesterday, Pope John Paul II asked God to “show mercy and forgiveness for the authors of this horrible terror attack.” These remarks have proved controversial, even to many Catholics. Mark Shea has taken a lot of heat for defending the Pope’s comments. I’m with Mark on this one. It seems to me that the witness of scripture and tradition is solidly behind the idea that Christians are called to forgive their enemies, even in those cases where those enemies don’t seek to be forgiven.

Having said that, I will add that this is something I struggle with greatly. Last night, I was able—through clenched teeth—to pray that Osama Bin Laden and his comrades repent of the evil they have done and embrace the Gospel. But that is a very different thing than forgiving them.

The other problem I wrestle with is figuring out which acts I have the right to forgive and which I don’t. To the extent that the deaths of other human beings on September 11th harmed me—and I think they harmed all of us in some way—then my forgiveness becomes meaningful. But I’m not sure I have the right to forgive harms that were not done to me. I can forgive the killers of John Smith to the extent that Smith’s death diminishes me. But only Smith’s son can forgive the killers for the loss of his father. I simply don’t have the standing to do that.

I think this principle applies in other contexts as well, such as the current clerical sexual abuse scandal. In this week’s America, a woman who was raped by a priest suggests that those who have not suffered a particular harm may not have the right to forgive it:

Catholics have come forward in defense of priests who have been accused of child molestation years ago and have led exemplary lives ever since. These Catholics believe that victims should forgive and forget. In response to these Catholics I suggest that if they have not been abused, they have no right to counsel forgiveness of an abuser; and if they have not been abused, they have nothing to forget. Some years ago in an article on suffering published in U.S. Catholic, the Rev. John Shea suggested that only the sufferer has the right to interpret her own suffering. I would add that only the sufferer has the right to offer forgiveness.
I should add that I don’t completely agree with this writer. As Christians, we must all counsel one another to forgive, even if we have not personally suffered the harm in question. But we need to respect the fact that extending forgiveness is difficult, particularly when the harm suffered is great. We need to stand in solidarity with victims of suffering and pray with them and for them that God will heal them and give them the strength to forgive.

But there is wisdom in this passage as well. I think it goes to the heart of why so many of us find it difficult to even contemplate extending forgiveness to the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks, even though we have not personally lost a family member or friend. We don’t want to break faith with those who have suffered such losses. We fear that to extend forgiveness would be to betray the dead and those they have left behind.

One of the things that has helped me to be a more forgiving person is to remember that my forgiveness is not a judgment on the seriousness of the act. The people I forgive may not “deserve” to be forgiven. But I don’t “deserve” to be forgiven either, and yet God has forgiven me and demands that I do the same. Forgiveness is a recognition that judgment is ultimately in God’s hands, not mine. I trust in His judgment and in his justice.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:35 PM
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HE WILL WIPE EVERY TEAR: Last night my wife and I attended a wonderful evening prayer service at our parish. We very much needed to be in our church, standing alongside the other members of our community, as we tried to cope with the memory of September 11th.

At our church, part of the wall behind the altar can be retracted to reveal a screen. During the service, pictures of the individuals who had died in the attacks on September 11th were projected on that screen, the faces changing every few seconds. I found this the most difficult part of the service to bear. Each of those faces represented a life that had been snuffed out, leaving someone without a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a sister or a brother, a friend or loved one. The pictures that I personally found most difficult to watch were those that showed young fathers holding babies. Those children may well grow up with no real memories of their fathers and I confess that this thought filled me with a terrible grief.

In the midst of this grief, I found the words of the Psalms and the readings to be truly consoling. In particular, these words from the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation stayed with me:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.
I hope and pray that it will be so.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:58 AM
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Wednesday, September 11, 2002
let us pray...

posted by Peter Nixon 7:16 AM
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Tuesday, September 10, 2002
F.D.N.Y.: One of the images that has stayed with me from September 11th is the firefighters going up into the towers as everyone else was trying to get out. I find that thinking about that image for any length of time tends to push me to the brink of tears. It has been difficult for me to explain to myself why I feel this way. In this week's Tablet, Father James Martin, S.J. finds the words that I couldn't:

The image [of the firefighters] was shocking, I believe, because it was profoundly counter-cultural. In American culture, the self is pre-eminent, celebrity and fame are pursued, and money is the ultimate (if not the only) measure of success and worth. But the firefighters’ actions flew in the face of these values. The men who raced into the Twin Towers, at risk to their own lives, were unconcerned with self, not seeking fame, and willing to perform heroic deeds without the promise of reward. Their actions were so deeply counter-cultural that they shocked us.

Moreover, the stories of the firefighters spoke to the part of us that recognises the deeply Christian image of the one who lays down his life for others. It is not difficult to draw a clear, bright line from rescue workers moving towards almost certain death in order to save others, to Jesus of Nazareth offering up his life for the salvation of mankind.

This is not to say that the rescue workers who lost their lives at the World Trade Centre were all saints. But that is the point: they were everyday human beings showing us the way that God loves. And something in us instinctively responded to these images of the divine, in the same way that we respond to a parable. God, I believe, was revealing himself in a clear way during a time of intense sadness and confusion.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:23 PM
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Monday, September 09, 2002
THE CATHEDRAL: I haven't offered any opinions about the new L.A. Cathedral because I haven't seen it in person. But John King, the architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is someone I like and whose opinion I respect. He was the Chronicle's principal columnist for Contra Costa county for several years and we corresponded a number of times by e-mail. On Saturday he published an essay on the new cathedral that is worth reading. After giving his perspective on the various aspects of the cathedral, he sums his views up nicely:

The emotional sum of all these parts? A feeling of timelessness. This resolutely modern cathedral is rooted in the past.
I hope he's right and I look forward to seeing it for myself someday.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:29 PM
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THE LOSS OF MEMORY: When I was eight years old, I went to visit my grandmother for a weekend. It was the longest I had ever been away from home without one of my parents. We lived in New Jersey and my grandmother lived in New York City, in an apartment at 40 Central Park South.

The World Trade Center had recently opened and my grandmother decided we should go up to the observation deck and take a look around. My memories of the visit are very vivid. As we walked up, I remember having to tilt my head very far back to see to the top of the towers. They were the biggest thing I had ever seen.

We entered the lobby of the South Tower. The lobby was huge and there were so many banks of elevators to choose from. They were staggered, with some elevators going to the lower floors, some to the middle floors, and so on. But there was a bank of express elevators that would take you straight to the observation deck.

The elevator rose very quickly and my ears popped from the pressure. There was a guide on the elevator who told us some things about the towers and the elevator, but I don’t remember very much.

The doors opened, and we walked out into a large hallway, one side of which was the glass wall of the tower. The view was stunning. The windows had white colored outlines of various architectural and geographical landmarks so you could see what you were looking at. You could see the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building; Long Island and New Jersey.

Eventually my grandmother suggested we go up and walk around on the roof. I remember being terrified, thinking I might fall off (I was a somewhat angst-ridden eight year old). But she convinced me it would be okay, that there would be a fence. As we rode the escalator to the roof, I remember holding her hand very tightly.

The observation deck was a raised square platform in the middle of the roof. We were a good 20 feet from the edge of the roof, and separated from it by two fences, one of which was electrified. I relaxed a little, as it was obvious that it would take some effort for me to fall off the edge of the roof.

I had never been in an airplane at this point in my life, so this was as high as I had ever been. I remember the wind blowing my hair as I walked around the deck. I remember looking over at the North Tower, the one with the high antenna on it. There appeared to be some workmen doing some work on the roof. After what seemed a very long time, we finally went back inside.

From that day onward, every time I drove or took the train into New York, I would see the Twin Towers and I would remember my visit there and the wonderful weekend I spent with my grandmother. She died in 1987, and seeing the towers always brought back fond memories of her.

That’s all gone now, of course. Now I, like the rest of us, will have other memories. On the scale of human suffering, the loss of a memory is rather insubstantial. It deserves a moment of grief, perhaps, but no more. But this Wednesday I will mourn it anyway, and thank God that my losses were not more substantial. And I will pray for those whose losses were.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:09 AM
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Sunday, September 08, 2002
WHERE'S THE RED HAT? Interesting piece in this week's Tablet on Archbishop Jean Jadot, papal nuncio to the United States during the pontificate of Paul VI. He is the only Vatican diplomat assigned to the United States who was never made a cardinal.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:00 PM
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ADVICE WELCOME: I've decided to take a page out of Fr. Shawn O'Neal's playbook. I have to give a brief talk at some of the masses next weekend about stewardship. You know the deal: time, talent, treasure. I'm sort of puttering along with it. Has anyone out there heard a good stewardship talk that they particularly liked? Why? Alternatively, have you heard any ones that you particularly disliked? Why? Drop me a line and let me know (click on link on the upper right hand side of the page).

posted by Peter Nixon 8:56 PM
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